Exchanges with a Former Commander (And Have You Found Zeus?)
This post covers a wide range of important topics. It details discussions that I had with a man who was once my commander. Enjoy.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: They Called Us Nerds, Gary. Nerds.
- •Is There a Difference Between Zeus and God?
- •The Trinity: Centers of Consciousness/Propositional Knowledge
- •Is Christ a Myth Copied from Ancient Cultures?
- •The Problem of Evil: An Epicurian Curiosity
- 1-Excursus: Can God make a rock so heavy that He can’t move it?
- 2-How Can God be All Good if People are Evil?
- 3-How Can God be All Good if Suffering Exists?
- Concluding Thoughts: A Beginning
Introduction: They Called Us Nerds, Gary. Nerds.
Every so often, a fellow nerd pops up and wants to discuss science and philosophy with me and my heavens am I thirsty for such discussion. Once, a former commander exchanged invigorating emails with me about God, science, free will, etc. Below are some Youtube videos we were talking about. In the text just after them, I remark on a few things in one or two of the youtube videos (not all of them, as we discussed them in rounds of emails) that were shared. You don’t need to watch them, as they’re very long, but I’m including them for my own notes.
I started watching the Youtube videos early in backward succession , though I have actually listened to the Carrier one before. In general, Carrier’s written work is more sophisticated than his talks, but I find him to be pretty sketchy when it comes to metaphysics, much as Stephen Hawking struggled in that area. I’ve taken some notes on this talk—to be fair, I didn’t watch it, but rather listened to it in a hotel room in Buffalo 2 summers ago—and have a few comments in my gmail archives, where I write basically all of my notes to myself. I’m short on time, but I’ll try to put a couple of these notes into a form that isn’t as shorthand and see how they come out. (I have literally thousands of notes to myself now, so I doubt this will go well! Ha!)
I think that this talk is filled with a great deal of historical inaccuracy, but I’m no scholar in that regard. The primary opposing historical narration can be found in Dr. Tryggve Mettinger’s book “The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East.” While reviews of it seem to usually just state, “No way, I believe Carrier” (and I mean that almost verbatim), research that I’ve found on Academia.edu and other less-expensive gateways seems to back Dr. Mettinger’s research.
Carrier also makes a number of basic philosophical mistakes (in my mind) that even ancient thinkers would have easily spotted, but which better atheist philosophers, such as Michael Ruse, are well versed in considering and breaking down on a more-academic level. For example, he compares a number of “parallels” briefly and concludes that there is no great difference between the core (frame) of the religions. In shallower terms, I’ve heard it said that there is no difference between Zeus and God. Or Thanos and God.
•Is There a Difference Between Zeus and God?
When I first heard that, I wasn’t sure how to respond with any eloquence. It struck me as deeply wrong on many levels, but it sounded really sexy at first blush.
Throughout history, much of polytheism has attributed laws of nature to various gods. There were gods of thunder, gods or fire, gods of rain, etc. These gods were, in fact, ruled by natural laws. Zeus, for example, had to be BORN by Cronus and Rhea. That’s a very distinct difference from the Logos of the Bible.
As Philoponus, Xenophanes of Colophon, and Aquinas noted, these such gods were really nothing more than humans given powers to control certain aspects of nature, as many natural laws ruled them. They were, then, gods of nature, but not outside of nature. They were subject to natural laws, meaning that they were not the creators of these laws. All three ancient thinkers reasoned that the universe must have been created, but by an entity outside of, unlike, and not governed by nature. If it were governed by nature, it would have been unable to create the universe, as the creator must be greater than the created.
Xenophanes made fun of the “gods,” realizing that the gods of people usually tended to look like the people that made them: an Ethiopian god would be dark, whereas a Thracian would be blue-eyed and ginger/pumpkinspice. He noted that if a cow had hands and could draw, the god of the cow would look like a cow, and likely the same for horses. (There was a certain disdain for polytheism, which tended be be an anthropomorphized form of nature worship, with Epicurus, for example, saying, “Thunderbolts can be produced in several different ways—just be sure to keep myths out of it!”) Yet Xenophanes also astutely noted, “There is one God…similar in mortals neither in shape nor thought…remote and effortless he governs all there is.” Xenophanes realized that nothing could come into being or exist as its own self-definition, and that there would have to be a de-deification of the universe, replaced by a creator that was utterly unlike all the other primitive concepts of god, where god mirrored man.
The God Logos is described rather differently than any other god, being universal, personal, and not “of” nature, but rather superior to and apart from both space and time. “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.” (Acts 17:24-25) God describes Himself as having the property of aseity/self-existence, as He is eternal, unlike so many of the gods men have made up. He is described as being outside of nature and utterly independent.
•The Trinity: Centers of Consciousness/Propositional Knowledge
While I won’t delve into it, the concept of Jesus as ho theos and also as the son of God is dissimilar to (that I have encountered) all other gods and fairly unique. Certainly unique enough that it very much upset the Jews! Many people don’t realize that the Bible begins with the narration of God saying, “Let US make man in our image.” The form of God used in many passages is a singular-plural, which is unusual. Philosophically, God is one What, but three Whos. That is, one Being, but three Persons. Compare that to me: when you ask me WHAT I am, and I can say, “Well I’m a human being with a brain, lungs, etc.,” but it doesn’t answer WHO I am.
But just as I am a being with one center of self-consciousness, whom I call I, God is described as a being with 3 centers, each one which can say, “I”— I am the father, I am the son; I am the Holy Spirit.” So the propositional philosophy there is quite interesting. Even more interesting is that the Jews recorded this ritualistically, but when a man made the claim to be a center of consciousness of a plural-singular God, were absolutely flabbergasted.
I think the argument for Jesus’ center of consciousness is fairly easy from the Biblical narrative, but more specifically can be argued as having the knowledge that “I” am the “Son of man” (Dan 7), and the “Son of God” (Luke 20:9-on, Mark 13, second verse, and Matthew 11:27, for example).
The Spirit having a centrality of its own can be referenced from John 7, 14, 15, 16, Galatians 4, and Romans 8. For example, John 14 seems to allow us to use the transitive property of equality to ascertain the same personhood-state (that is, the same level of distinct, yet different consciousness) between Jesus and the Spirit.Importantly, the New Testament writings distinguish between God the Father and Jesus. “Ho theos,” or “God” in the writing, is important here, I believe. If God=Father, how can Jesus be called God without being called “father?” Such would overturn the distinct center of consciousness. There is a wonderful book on this by Dr. Murray Harris called “Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus,” though you have to know a little Greek to read it, as swathes of it are in Greek.
Anyway, the way to show this equality and oneness while still showing distinction was done with the word “kyrios,” which we translate as “Lord.” One example of this polyfunctional nature of being-with-distinction is shown in the 8th chapter of 1 Corinthians, where Paul said,
“5 For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.”
In other places, the distinction of self-consciousness is not affirmed positively in order to instead affirm Jesus as indeed being “ho theos,” which is important with cults like the INC (a religion from the Philippines) being around. Romans 9:5, for example, goes full-steam ahead in making sure that we see this plainly. I think that passages like Titus 2:13 and Hebrews 1:8-12 are very important in such regard, myself. For the distinction of personality coupled with the concept of God/Father/Son, Philippians 2:5-7 is pretty iron-clad.
So that’s my inductive reasoning on a tangential subject, but it gets me to another part of my notes that you might find interesting. I know that this doesn’t flow well, but again, it’s patchwork from gmail.
•Is Christ a Myth Copied from Ancient Cultures?
Another example of what I think Carrier glosses over too easily (easy to do if it’s not written work, granted) is Inanna. He claims that Inanna descends to hell and is crucified like Jesus, and like Jesus, is resurrected 3 days later. However, in the Akkadian tablet, Inanna descends into the underworld, loses clothes and jewelry going through gates, and is imprisoned and diseased. A servant of God is sent to rescue her so that people will start boning again (since she represents fertility), and she is anointed with healing oil and water, but then her husband has to take her place in the underworld. In the Sumerian version, we see some additional detail including that a servant started praying about Inanna after 3 days, and she went to a variety of gods, which might have taken quite a bit, as she journeyed around looking for help. The tablets also mention that Inanna was pronounced dead by some judges and later her body was placed on a hook.
This is not much like Jesus being tried by Pilate and killed slowly on an actual cross. Oddly, Carrier remarks in one of his books that he cautions people from being too eager in trying to show similarities between Inanna and Jesus, IIRC. Certainly the concept of Logos and a plural-singular God is not much like one finds in the myths Carrier presents. I do appreciate that he brings up Mithra as something not to be embraced. The others he mentions are likewise sketchy-at-best if one looks into them (truly not parallel at all in any deep sense), but he is wise to avoid the use of some of the more popular memetic examples one finds on FB and other places. Briefly, the ones I see the most are as follows, all claiming to be the same as the Jesus story, but upon examination, one finds the following errors, which exemplify popular, yet poor, historical research:
- Was ol’ Horus born of a virgin? No. Horus was conceived when Isis had sex with Osiris. Osiris’ body parts have been scattered all over the land, and Isis put them all back together and managed to have sex with the construct. Creepily enough, she does this while in the form of a bird, so it’s interspecies sex with a reanimated-ish corpse.
- Did Horus have 12 disciples? No, try like 4.
- Was Horus dead and resurrected after 3 days? No. There is no record of Horus even “dying,” unless you count him merging with another God and then becoming cyclical.
- Was ol’ Dionysus born of a virgin? No, unless you count Zeus impregnating his mom as “being born of a virgin.”
- Was Dionysus resurrected like Jesus? No, he was, in most stories, torn apart and eaten by Titans. He is said to be “a god who renews himself and returns every year rejuvenated,” whatever that means. So not exactly much like Jesus.
- Did Mithra have 12 disciples? Depending on the legend, it’s either one or two. So that’s a no.
- Was Mithra born of a virgin? Mithra was born from a solid rock. Are rocks virgins? Not in the traditional sense, and it probably is best to avoid trying to take one’s virginity.
- Did Mithra die on the cross only to later be resurrected? Given that Mithra is nowhere said to have died, that seems unlikely.
I will have to make a spreadsheet sometime where I compare and contrast all of Carrier’s favorites, as I don’t think that I’ve committed them to gmail yet.
Anyway, I remember finding a number of weird little things like that throughout Carrier’s speech, so I’m not sure if I like it that much. I think that his written work tends to be better, but often the rhetorical flourish gets the better of us when we’re speaking on stage. However, I should give at least one other example of what I find to be deprecated arguments.
•The Problem of Evil: An Epicurian Curiosity
The Epicurian argument (I mentioned this dude above) used to be pretty persuasive, but I think that the renaissance in modern philosophy by people like Plantiga has pretty firmly made it a fad which has sense passed. Philosophers who are acquainted with modern, academic discussion of this topic currently discuss this in two terms: the intellectual problem of evil, and the emotional problem of evil. I was going to paste my notes (mostly taken from atheist thinkers, but dissected) here, but I just checked and one note I made alone is 7606 words long…probably too much! LOL. Anyway, these days philosophers of course look at the intellectual side from the internal and external points of view. The internal version takes two forms: the probabilistic version, and the logical version. My notes on these two come in at 6969 words, so I’m trying to figure out a quick way to break down the current thinking on this subject.
I guess I’ll just go with Dr. Plantiga’s notes on this, as succinctly as possible. The Epicurian note boils logically down to two statements which are held as incompatible:
1. An omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists.
2. Evil exists.
Lately, many scholars are beginning to realize that the proponent of the logical version of the problem of evil must assume an enormous burden of proof which is simply too much to sustain—there are some good debates which show this, though I prefer written back-and-forth more. On the surface, the two statements are not logically inconsistent. There is no explicit contradiction, so the proponent is arguing an implicit contradiction, which are the following:
3. If God is omnipotent, then He can create any world that He desires.
4. If God is omnibenevolent, then He prefers a world without evil over a world with evil.
Hume summarized this accurately saying, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
In as few words as I can manage, modern philosophy has largely graduated beyond this discussion, though it sounds slick, so it’s a good piece for Carrier to bring up—and he may simply not be aware of advances in this area. It has been noted that if it is even *possible* that creatures have libertarian freedom (even if in fact they do not), then the two assumptions made by the objector are not necessarily true, which they necessarily have to be if the atheist is to show that there is no possibility of the co-existence of God and evil.
If libertarian free will is possible, it is not necessarily true that an omnipotent God can create just any possible world that He desires. God’s being omnipotent does not imply that He can do logical impossibilities. Let me briefly present an excursus that explores Stephen Hawking’s bafflement.
1-Excursus: Can God make a rock so heavy that He can’t move it?
No doubt you’ve heard this, and it raises certain paradoxes of omnipotence that are tough to consider, and perhaps frustrate you. I think it’s important to address it here because it brings up not just what God can or can’t do, but what is logically possible and even feasible for God to do. Let’s start with this:
Does God’s being all-powerful mean that God can act contrary to His own nature? Can God contradict His own nature because He is all-powerful?
Now let’s consider it in the light of theoretical, moral questions. Could God commit adultery? Could God worship a god that He created? These seem impossible because they would be contrary to the essence of God. He is essentially holy and morally perfect and therefore cannot sin. So omnipotence should not be taken to mean that God can act contrary to His own nature. He cannot act against His own essence, which includes things like moral perfection. That would not be encompassed within omnipotence.
But what about logical impossibilities? For example, people will often ask if God can make a stone to heavy for Him to lift. If He is all-powerful, shouldn’t God be able to make a stone that is so heavy that He is unable to lift it? If you say, “No, He can lift anything!” then that means there is something He can’t do – which is make such a stone. This is a logical impossibility, though, and is better seen with some other questions, which follow.
Could God bring it about that Jesus both died on the cross and did not die on the cross? That again seems logically inconceivable – that is a logical contradiction. Let’s look at some other questions. Can God make a:
1.) Round square?
2.) Married bachelor?
Those sorts of logical impossibilities are typically exempted from omnipotence in good, philosophical discourse. Omnipotence doesn’t mean the ability to do things that are logically impossible.
Indeed, something that is logically impossible isn’t really a thing at all, when you think about it. It is not as though there is some “thing” that God can’t do. A round square. A married bachelor. Those are just contradictory combinations of words, and there is no such thing as a round square, a married bachelor, or a stone too heavy for God to lift. This is not an infringement of his omnipotence, as it is typically understood. Instead, it’s actually just an unintelligible “gotcha” statement that makes no sense when explored, as it’s self-contradictory.
These sorts of questions need to be approached logically, as what they really are is an attempt to assert that foundationally-based contradictions are a basis for truth.
2-How Can God be All Good if People are Evil?
Returning back to the question of evil and God’s co-existence, it is not possible for any god to make a logically impossible thing, such as make a round square or a person who freely is forced to love. If one causes a person to make a specific choice, then the choice is no longer free in the libertarian sense. Thus, if God grants people genuine freedom to choose as they like, it is then impossible for Him to guarantee what their choices will be. All He can do is create the circumstances in which a person is able to make a free choice and then stand back and let him make that choice.
Now what this implies is that there are worlds which are possible in and of themselves, but which God is incapable of actualizing. (And I would say that, even more foundationally, Carrier’s opinions that he presents are rooted in Calvinism vs Arminianism, when middle-knowledge (classically, Molinism) is the logically probable place to explore, though for whatever reason not many know of it.) With middle-knowledge, God may know what would occur in any circumstance, but not all things are feasible.
Now approach the statements of Epicurus and Hume realizing that, in every feasible world where God creates free creatures, some of those creatures freely choose to do evil. In such a case, it is the creatures themselves who bring about evil, and God can do nothing to prevent their doing so, apart from refusing to actualize any such worlds. Thus it is possible that every world feasible for God which contains free creatures is a world with sin and evil. So the first assumption made by the objector, namely, that an omnipotent God can create any world that He desires, is just not necessarily true. Therefore, the objector’s argument on this ground alone is invalid.
3-How Can God be All Good if Suffering Exists?
But what about the second assumption, that if God is omnibenevolent, then He prefers a world without evil over a world with evil? Again, such an assumption is not necessarily true. The fact is that in many cases we allow pain and suffering to occur in a person’s life in order to bring about some greater good or because we have some sufficient reason for allowing it. Every parent knows this fact, and I know if, even though I’m STILL not a parent…mom says I should try being more attractive. There comes a point at which a parent can no longer protect his child from every mishap and there are other times when discipline must be inflicted on the child in order to teach him to become a mature, responsible, adult.
Similarly, God may permit suffering in our lives in order to build us or to test us, or to build and test others, or to achieve some other overriding end. Thus, even though God is omnibenevolent, He might well have morally sufficient reasons for permitting pain and suffering in the world. Consequently, the second assumption of our objector, that an omnibenevolent God prefers a world with no evil over a world with evil, is also not necessarily true. The argument is thus doubly invalid.
Concluding Thoughts: A Beginning
Ok, I was starting to cobble more notes together, but I realized that my enthusiasm for this sort of youtube video is preventing me from packing and is just too long by far. Instead of making you read a patchwork of 12,000,000 pages of my notes, I would like to say that I am most persuaded by the following topics:
1.) Cosmogony including the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, which explores an absolute beginning.
Briefly as such: If the universe is somehow past eternal, then perhaps it need not have a cause or Causer. In this way, some have been seeking to rid themselves of the burden of the Big Bang, before which where was nothing. Not just a vacuum—a vacuum is space—but nothing.
No dimensions, no time, nothing.In 2003, three very famous cosmologists (Arvin Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin) proved that any universe which is, on average, in cosmic expansion, cannot be past eternal, but must have a past space-time boundary (that is, a beginning of both time and space, before which neither existed). In fact, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem implies that even if our universe is just one of many universes as part of a grand multiverse, still the multiverse itself must have an absolute beginning. So even on the multiverse theories, it turns out that the universe began to exist.
And what begins must have a cause.
Vilenkin is very blunt about the implications of this. In his book “Many Worlds in One,” he writes:
“It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape; they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.”
2.) The impossibility of an actual infinite within spacetime, as noted as far back as the time of Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali.
3.) The impossibility of free-will on atheism.
4.) The impossibility of evil on atheism.
With love, always,